The Least Christian Generation in American History

Pulses

Hey, I didn’t say it, they did:

Teenagers today are the most non-Christian generation in American history as only four out of 100 teens hold a true biblical worldview and one out of every eight teens identify as non-heterosexual, a new survey released by one of the nation’s leading evangelical polling firms has found.

All the blogs are digesting a new survey from Barna Research – which, let me remind you, is a Christian polling firm – regarding “Generation Z”. This is their term for the generation coming up after the Millennials, the people born in 2000 or later. (Will we have to loop around and call the next generation after them “Generation A”?)

While the Millennials are known for irreligiosity, according to Barna, Gen Z leaves us in the dust:

The study indicates that 35 percent of Generation Z teens considered themselves to be atheist, agnostic or not affiliated with any religion…. almost twice as many teens in Generation Z (13 percent) claimed to be atheist than millenials (7 percent).

For years now, we’ve been seeing that every generation of Americans is less religious than the last. Judging by Barna’s findings, that trend hasn’t lost momentum. And while 59% of Gen Z teenagers identify as Christian, Barna says that doesn’t count, because most of them are Christian-in-name-only or cafeteria believers who pick and choose for themselves. They report that only 4% of the entire cohort holds a “biblical worldview”, a record low. (Sounds good to me!)

Gen Z’s stated reasons for rejecting religion will sound familiar, with the intriguing twist that they’re more likely than their elders to say science is superior to faith:

One out of five teens in the Barna study imagine Christianity as negative and judgmental. Some of the biggest barriers to belief are the problem of evil (29%), perceived hypocrisy among Christians (23%), and the conflict between science and Scripture (20%). Gen Z is less likely than older generations to see science and the Bible as complementary. (source)

Some commentators have called Gen Z “the first post-Christian generation”, and I think that’s accurate, though not in the way they mean it. The Millennials were the last generation of Americans to grow up in an era when Christianity was the dominant cultural power, when the religious right set the tone and the agenda for politics in this country. But they chose their battles badly, and they lost many of them crushingly, notably intelligent design and especially marriage equality. And with that defeat, they lost the younger generations.

The new generation is the first to grow up without direct experience of that time when conservative Christianity held sway. They treat diversity as the norm. They think of equal rights for LGBT people as a basic moral principle, not a wildly controversial idea. They’re more familiar and comfortable with science as the only trustworthy means of knowledge.

And most intriguingly, there’s this: Christianity Today notes that Gen Z teenagers are into their phones in a big way: “more than half (57%) are on their devices four or more hours a day, and more than a quarter (26%) are on them eight or more”.

It’s tempting to wonder if this is more than coincidence. As I’ve noted before, there’s reason to believe that the internet is killing religion by depriving churches of their ability to isolate their members from dissenting viewpoints and inconvenient facts. As internet connectivity becomes ubiquitous, we’d expect dogmatic religious views to decline in tandem.

The question, for Christian proselytizers, is what they intend to do. And judging by what I’ve seen, the answer is “we have no idea”. Although a lot of Christian sites are reporting on Barna’s findings, I’ve found surprisingly few that suggest any specific course of action. Most have nothing to offer but empty platitudes, like Barna’s president David Kinnaman:

“…I am asking you how it is in your church and your context, in your ministry could help kids [today] have a more robust experience of what it means to be Christian,” he added. “We need to be thinking theologically. We need to challenge them. They are ready to be challenged more than the church is willing to challenge them.”

“Challenged”… how? By what? It’s hard to see how this doesn’t boil down to “present the same apologetic arguments that have been failing for decades, but louder”.

Even more offensively, Brooke Hempell, Barna’s senior vice president:

“There are a lot of churches that are empty in this country. Gen Z is the one who is really showing the fruit of that. There are many of them [who] are a spiritual blank slate.”

This obnoxious stereotype implies that anyone who isn’t Christian is an empty vessel just waiting to be filled up. As her own firm’s data shows, young people aren’t unaware of Christianity, they reject its teachings as immoral or scientifically unfounded.

Then there’s James Emery White, a pastor who’s written a whole book about reaching Gen Z. Even he doesn’t seem to be bursting with ideas:

On the most superficial of levels, most churches are divorced from the technological world Generation Z inhabits. But on the deeper level, they are divorced from the culture itself in such a way as to be unable to build strategic bridges — relationally, intellectually, aesthetically — to reach Generation Z. The church simply has too many blind spots.

As Anita Little notes in her commentary “This Is How You Lose Them“, White (an appropriate name if ever there was one) shies away from naming the elephant in the room: American Christianity demands rigid hierarchies of race, sexuality and gender. This clashes hard with younger generations’ racial and ethnic diversity and comfort with fluidity of gender expression:

White is correct in saying “the church simply has too many blind spots,” but again, it’s a glaring omission to not name some of those blind spots, particularly when it comes to evangelicalism’s increasingly unpopular views on sexuality, gender and race.

One can only imagine how farther they have left to fall with this generation, now that evangelical Christianity has thrown its support behind a sexual harasser, white supremacist president.

There’s one more Christian commentary I want to note, although it was written last year: a review of psychologist Jean Twenge’s book iGen. It hits the same notes about how young people are more likely to say religion is incompatible with science, and more likely to reject the anti-LGBT attitudes “supposedly endemic to Biblical Christianity” (hahahaha).

But then there’s this:

From their earliest years, iGen’ers have been presented with a dizzying array of choices in everything from food and clothes to gadgets and lifestyles. And they have been encouraged, by practically every song, video, and movie, to believe in themselves and follow their own dreams. All of this self-preoccupation and stress upon individual liberty stands sharply athwart the religious ideal of surrendering to God and his purposes.

This is a remarkable admission. It’s saying that religion runs into difficulties when people are accustomed to freedom.

In this view, the only way for religion to thrive is for people to believe that there’s a small set of rigidly defined roles in life and that others have both the power and the right to determine your destiny. In a world where you can choose your own purpose and decide for yourself what you want to do with your life, atheism will become the norm. Religion can’t compete if it’s not the enforced choice, if it’s just one option among many.

All in all, American demographics give us reason for hope. If we can get over the hump of the next few decades, the world will be in far better hands.

Obviously, the road to utopia isn’t as easy as putting our feet up and waiting. Every generation, including this one, will have to face its own flaws and overcome its own unique challenges. But we have reason to believe that some of the beliefs which have caused so much harm to humanity in the past are on their way to extinction. It’s a future I’m eagerly looking forward to living in.

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